Wednesday, April 17, 2024

“MARLOWE”

THE STORY – Detective Phillip Marlowe becomes embroiled in an investigation with a wealthy family in Bay City, California after a beautiful blonde hires him to find her former lover.

THE CAST – Liam Neeson, Diane Kruger, Jessica Lange, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Alan Cumming, Danny Huston & Colm Meaney

THE TEAM – Neil Jordan (Director) & William Monahan (Screenwriter)

THE RUNNING TIME – 124 Minutes


Philip Marlowe has had a contradictory history on film. The character, who was introduced in the novels of Raymond Chandler, epitomized the hard-boiled private detective in classics like “Murder, My Sweet” (1944) and “The Big Sleep” (1946). It doesn’t get more traditional than Humphrey Bogart tossing off one-liners in a trenchcoat. As the decades wore on, however, Marlowe proved surprisingly adaptable. He was remodeled as a 007 parody in “Marlowe” (1969), a mumbling eccentric in “The Long Goodbye” (1973), and an aging romantic in the TV movie “Poodle Springs” (1998). Which is best is up for debate, but they all worked on their own unique terms.

Marlowe’s adaptability and longevity go hand in hand, so when it was announced that the character would be dusted off yet again for “Marlowe” (2022), there was just cause for excitement. How would the detective evolve, and what would Liam Neeson do to distinguish himself from the stars who preceded him? The film’s director/writer combo, Neil Jordan and William Monahan, had undoubtedly proven their neo-noir bona fides over the years, with the former helming the masterpiece “Mona Lisa” (1986) and the latter winning an Oscar for adapting “The Departed” (2006). All the right pieces were assembled, which means any and all mistakes would come down to execution.

“Marlowe” clarifies upfront that it will not add new shades to the character. If anything, the fidelity to the source material is so precise and unwavering that it’s a little stifling. A blonde named Clare Cavendish (Diane Kruger) walks into Marlowe’s office and feeds him a cockamamie story about a lover gone missing. A solid enough starting point, but the staging of the scene is so flat and lacking in personality that it gets dangerously close to parody. Jordan knows how to bring unpredictability to familiar noir scenarios, so the sudden pivot to this lifeless presentation is both confusing and concerning.

The director is able to regain his juice as the film progresses, but never for more than a few scenes at a time. For every standout moment, there’s a tedious exchange between Marlowe and a suspect against a blown-out recreation of 1930s LA. There’s momentum gained from the introduction of scenery-chewing characters like Lou Hendricks (Alan Cumming) and Clare’s mother, Dorothy (Jessica Lange). Still, it’s repeatedly squandered by Marlowe getting into fistfights with notably less interesting henchmen.

Then there’s the Neeson of it all. He’s an Oscar-nominated actor, an action star with undeniable gravitas, and a painfully miscast Marlowe. The character has always thrived on his flippant attitude and ability to cut through nonsense with a well-placed dig. He’s a talker, not a bruiser, and Neeson plays him completely opposite. The actor struggles with the fast-paced dialogue, giving each of Marlowe’s lines the same clumsy reading. It removes all comedic bite, resulting in way too many good lines falling flat.

The fights aren’t much better. Neeson is still a commanding physical presence, but he’s 70, and it’s becoming increasingly hard to believe he can rip through guys half his age. The idea of an older Marlowe has potential, as evidenced by Robert Mitchum’s soulful turn in “Farewell, My Lovely” (1975), but the insistence on making him a physical threat removes any nuance that could have otherwise been explored. When the character finally does get overpowered and knocked out (as is customary with Marlowe stories), it’s almost surprising.

Ironically, the sequence after Marlowe’s capture is easily the best in the entire film. He gets dragged through a club that is drenched in neon blue and decked out with scantily-clad women. The film speed is slowed dramatically to resemble the character’s dazed perspective, and nightmarish elements are peripherally brought into the frame (a bright yellow fish tank and a couple of bloodied corpses). The cherry on top is the use of the pop standard “I’ll Be Seeing You,” which is slowed down for a similarly chilling effect. It’s a bravura piece of direction and sound design, and the one time the film manages to find new ways to depict a classic detective beat.

Overall, the cons of “Marlowe” far outweigh the pros. The film suffers from inconsistent direction and a star who feels painfully ill-equipped to handle the script he’s been given. There’s a tight little mystery in here and some choice dialogue that gets properly savored by the likes of Cumming and Lange, but it still lands on the lower tier of the Marlowe filmography.

As someone who adores film noir and its various permutations, I went into “Marlowe,” knowing that I was the exact demographic it was being targeted towards. My opinion isn’t the end-all-be-all, of course, but if viewers starved for hard-boiled material are bored by stiff execution, then “Marlowe” will probably miss the mark for everyone else too.

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Danilo Castro
Danilo Castro
Music lover. Writer for Screen Rant, Noir Foundation, Classic Movie Hub & Little White Lies.

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